When Indian couple Krishna and Aruna Indrekar tied the knot in 1996, their union was faced with vehement opposition.
The couple had opted for a court marriage — renouncing their community’s rituals, which required Aruna to undergo a virginity test. The rebellion did not go down well with the local community-based council, and its kangaroo court refused to accept the marriage. It further declared a social boycott against the newlyweds.
More than two decades later, the couple remains ostracized from their community.
“When I was pregnant with my only child, members of the community would come to our home, threaten us, and say that our baby was illegitimate. They’d argue that since our marriage wasn’t valid, even our child was being born out of wedlock,” says Aruna, 47. “They’d say that our child was disabled because we had humiliated our gods by not adhering to the virginity test, the community’s sacred, age-old ritual.”
The custom of virginity tests, says Krishna, a 51-year-old government employee, is a feudal tradition, rampant across the Bhantu community, a nomadic tribe in India. In accordance with the ritual, a female member of the community strips the bride on her wedding night of her jewelry and clothing to ensure she isn’t hiding a blade or similar tools. The couple is then given a two-meter white cloth to sleep on.
Members of the caste council wait outside the couple’s room as they consummate their marriage, and knock on the door about 30 minutes later. If the bride bleeds, it’s assumed she’s a virgin, and the marriage is officiated. If not, she faces repercussions.
“Usually, in cases where the bride hasn’t bled, the groom refuses to accept her, and the marriage is immediately annulled,” says Krishna Chandgude, a social activist, who started a campaign in the western Indian state of Maharashtra against caste council atrocities in 2013.
Chandgude adds that there are several scientifically proven reasons why a hymen to rupture outside of sex — cycling, playing seesaw, horseback riding, gymnastics, or any extreme physical activity. “However, when we try to reason with the caste council, they refuse to listen to us. They say that if virginity tests were removed from the community, girls would either go astray and indulge in premarital sex, or get raped.”
Depending on the family’s financial standing, the bride’s father is asked to foot a penalty.
“Should the father fail to furnish the amount, the family faces social boycott. No one in the community speaks to them, they’re not allowed to participate in social or religious gatherings, their children are deserted by their friends, and business ties, if any, are severed,” says Chandgude.
Members of the Bhantu tribe are spread across 18 states in India with varying names in different areas, says Raman Bhatu, president of the Rajasthan Bhantu Community. The tribe’s presence is highest in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, while the total population stands at approximately 5 million.
Priyanka Tamaichekar, 26, who was raised in Maharashtra’s Pune city, grew up to be afraid of marriages. She says that as an adolescent, she would witness an assault on new brides at least five times a year.
Too little to understand what perpetrated the violence, she would simply assume that weddings meant lavish dinners followed by a morning of brutal attacks on the bride, and desertion from her husband.
“I saw my own classmates get beaten up — all of them defenseless, married and abandoned before they turned 18,” says Tamaichekar, who works with a real estate firm.
She adds that while failed virginity tests invite violence, a positive result leads to celebrations.
“In cases where the bride bleeds, her father goes around the neighborhood, dancing in joy. He boasts how is daughter is a virgin, and has not just protected, but added to the family’s honor. To commemorate the ‘jeeti’ (victory), he serves a special rice preparation to all residents of the neighborhood.”
Advocate Ranjana Gavande has been helping women who were abandoned following virginity tests in the Sangamner district of Maharahstra for the past eight years. She says that there are thousands of councils of the Bhantu community all over the country, and countless women have been wronged this way.
Twenty-eight Indian states lack a law protecting women from this kind of assault. And even when there are laws in place, like in Maharashtra where Tamaichekar lives, the police are usually reluctant to act on such complaints. They often believe that laws of the community are more important than books of statute, says Gavande.
Gavande cites the example of a 21-year-old woman in the Ghulewadi town of Maharashtra, who failed her virginity test in June 2016. The groom refused to accept her, and walked away with the jewelry, furniture and other dowry items the bride’s family had bought for him.
Gavande says when she visited the town three days later, the bride’s father was still sitting at the wedding venue, face hidden behind his palms.
“I insisted that he file a police complaint, but he firmly refused. He reasoned that if he went against the council, he would be boycotted from the community, and no one would marry his other two daughters,” Gavande says.
Eventually, the story was reported in the regional press, the groom was compelled to take his wife back.
Bhatu, meanwhile, defends the virginity test. “It’s prevalent in communities all over the world, and has been a part of our culture since ancient times. It exists to ensure the safety of women.”
Although virginity tests have existed for a long time in the Bhantu community, it’s only now that the practice is witnessing resistance. Vivek Tamaichekar, a 28-year-old student in Mumbai, spearheaded the protest in October 2017, with a WhatsApp group called “Stop the V-Ritual.” The group includes 40 people from his Kanjarbhat community, and is now working to create awareness against the ritual.
Vivek Tamaichekar, who is due to get married in May this year, first learned about this “cruel, discriminatory” practice when he got engaged to his fiancee, Aishwarya Bhat two years ago. Determined to protect his would-be wife from the virginity test, he told his family that he wouldn’t participate in the ritual.
“My family turned against me, while Aishwarya’s kin threatened to call the wedding off. That’s when I realized the magnitude of the issue, and decided to mobilize youngsters from my community who were willing to raise their voices against the archaic custom,” he says.
He said when elders in the community learned about the initiative he started getting phone calls and threats.
“Many of our group members were compelled by their families to leave,” says Vivek Tamaichekar. He remains adamant that he won’t allow his wife to undergo the “humiliating test.”
“This practice is a reflection of the Indian society, where women are still treated as secondary citizens. Why aren’t men subjected to this test?” he asks.
Krishna Indrekar, meanwhile, has also joined the group.